The Sudarium of Oviedo: Its History and Relationship to the Shroud of Turin

Often mentioned in Shroud circles as marked with imprints that match those on the Shroud is a little known Spanish relic known as THE OVIEDO SUDARIUM (seen above). Opinions vary as to whether this ancient cloth’s enigmatic stains offer a genuine match to the Shroud, or whether it’s all just wishful thinking, but here BSTS member Mark Guscin, who has written an as yet unpublished book on the relic, gives his interpretation of the known facts:

This sudarium has been mentioned various times in Shroud society newsletters, but no clear explanation of what it is, and what it represents, has been given in the English language. It is difficult to summarise the detailed study that has been carried out on the sudarium in Spain, but I think that anyone interested in the Shroud should at least have this basic knowledge.

The sudarium is a piece of cloth which has been in Spain since the seventh century. It measures 84 x 53 cm. and contains only bloodstains mixed with serum. There is no image on the cloth. It is claimed that this is the cloth mentioned in John 20:6-7, the cloth that was lying apart from the main linen in the empty tomb.

The bloodstains on the cloth show that it was used to cover the dead man’s face, and folded over on itself, although not in the middle. The blood soaked all the way through, in a logical order of decreasing intensity. The astonishing thing about the stains is that they coincide exactly with the shape and form of the face of the man on the Shroud. The length of the nose is exactly 8cms. on both cloths, and the identical form of the chin and beard are is remarkable.

The cloth has been studied in great detail by a special investigation team from the Centro Espanol de Sindonologia, who have observed that this sudarium was in contact with the dead man’s face for a limited period of time, because only fresh blood has stained it, not coagulated or clotted blood. This is evident from the fact that the stains are superimposed, and would also explain the absence of the inverted 3-shaped blood stain, as this blood would already have clotted. Dr. Alan Whanger has also suggested that the crown of thorns was still in place when the sudarium was applied to the face. Dr. Whanger applied the Polarized Image Overlay Technique to the sudarium and the Shroud, and concluded that both cloths must have covered the same face.

It is generally accepted that suffocation was the direct cause of death in crucifixion. When this happens, a kind of serum collects in the lungs of the crucified person. This is exactly what is present in the nasal area bloodstains on the sudarium, suggesting that the cause of death was the same as that of the man of the Shroud.

Most of the medical examination on the sudarium has been carried out by Dr. Villalain of the University of Valencia. His studies have shown that the cloth was held to the man’s face in the nasal area – there are even traces of the fingerprints of the man who held it there – could these possibly be those of the disciple John? The blood and serum came out through the nose due to the jolting movements of taking the body down from the cross and carrying it to the tomb. Calculating the time lapse between the super imposed stains, Dr. Villalain has concluded that the body must have lain still between being taken down from the cross and carried to the tomb. This time lapse of about one hour could have been the waiting time to receive Pilate’s permission to bury the body.

Covering the disfigured face of a dead man was perfectly in keeping with Jewish burial traditions. The cloth would have been discarded on entering the tomb, when the larger linen cloths were wrapped around the body. This is why the sudarium was lying apart.

The well-known sindonologist Dr. Baima Bollone has analysed blood samples from both the sudarium and the Shroud, and found that both belong to the same group, namely AB.

The only possible conclusion from all the investigation is that these two cloths were in contact with the same face. The history of the sudarium is documented from the first century, with no doubts or possible misinterpretations. This is conclusive evidence that the Shroud of Turin must also date from the first century.

1: Physical Description and History

The cathedral in Oviedo where the sudarium is kept

One of the relics held by the cathedral in the town of Oviedo, in the north of Spain, is a piece of cloth measuring approximately 84 x 53 cm. There is no image on this cloth. Only stains are visible to the naked eye, although more is visible under the microscope. The remarkable thing about this cloth is that both tradition and scientific studies claim that the cloth was used to cover and clean the face of Jesus after the crucifixion. We are going to present and look into these claims.

Such a cloth is known to have existed from the gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 6 and 7. These verses read as follows, “Simon Peter, following him, also came up, went into the tomb, saw the linen cloth lying on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself.” John clearly differentiates between this smaller face cloth, the sudarium, and the larger linen that had wrapped the body.

The history of the sudarium is well documented, and much more straightforward than that of the Shroud. Most of the information comes from the twelfth century bishop of Oviedo, Pelagius (or Pelayo), whose historical works are the Book of the Testaments of Oviedo, and the Chronicon Regum Legionensium.

According to this history, the sudarium was in Palestine until shortly before the year 614, when Jerusalem was attacked and conquered by Chosroes II, who was king of Persia from 590 to 628. It was taken away to avoid destruction in the invasion, first to Alexandria by the presbyter Philip, then across the north of Africa when Chosroes conquered Alexandria in 616. The sudarium entered Spain at Cartagena, along with people who were fleeing from the Persians. The bishop of Ecija, Fulgentius, welcomed the refugees and the relics, and surrendered the chest, or ark, to Leandro, bishop of Seville. He took it to Seville, where it spent some years.

The entrance to the Cámara Santa in the cathedral

Saint Isidore was later bishop of Seville, and teacher of Saint Ildefonso, who was in turn appointed bishop of Toledo. When he left Seville to take up his post there, he took the chest with him. It stayed in Toledo until the year 718. It was then taken further north to avoid destruction at the hands of the Muslims, who conquered the majority of the Iberian peninsula at the beginning of the eighth century. It was first kept in a cave that is now called Monsacro, ten kilometres from Oviedo. King Alfonso II had a special chapel built for the chest, called the “Cámara Santa”, later incorporated into the cathedral.

The key date in the history of the sudarium is the 14th March 1075, when the chest was officially opened in the presence of King Alfonso VI, his sister Doña Urraca, and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. A list was made of the relics that were in the chest, and which included the sudarium. In the year 1113, the chest was covered with silver plating, on which there is an inscription inviting all Christians to venerate this relic which contains the holy blood. The sudarium has been kept in the cathedral at Oviedo ever since.

2: Analysis of the Sudarium

The sudarium of Oviedo

All the credit for the investigations carried out on the sudarium must go to the Investigation Team of the Spanish Centre for Sindonology, under the leadership of Guillermo Heras. The medical part of the investigation was done by Dr. José Villalaín.

The stains on the sudarium show that when the cloth was placed on the dead man’s face, it was folded over, although not in the middle. Counting both sides of the cloth, there is therefore a fourfold stain in a logical order of decreasing intensity.

From the composition of the main stains, it is evident that the man whose face the sudarium covered died in an upright position. The stains consist of one part blood and six parts fluid from a pleural oedema. This liquid collects in the lungs when a crucified person dies of asphyxiation, and if the body subsequently suffers jolting movements, can come out through the nostrils. These are in fact the main stains visible on the sudarium.

These stains in the nasal area are also superimposed on each other, with the different outlines clearly visible. This means that the first stain had already dried when the second stain was formed, and so on.

The specially modeled head used by Dr. Villalaín to recreate the stains

Dr. Villalaín had a specially modelled head made to reconstruct the process of staining and drying, and was thus able to calculate the time that elapsed between the formation of each stain.

The cloth was not wrapped entirely round the head because the right cheek was almost touching the right shoulder. This suggests that the sudarium was put into place while the body was still on the cross. The second stain was made about an hour later, when the body was taken down. The third stain was made when the body was lifted from the ground about forty five minutes later. The body was lying at the foot of the cross for about forty-five minutes before being buried. The marks (not fingerprints) of the fingers that held the cloth to the nose are also visible.

How the sudarium was wrapped around the head

The experiments with the model head and the study of the stains also show that when the man died his head was tilted seventy degrees forward and twenty degrees to the right. This position further suggests that the man whose face the sudarium covered died crucified.

There are smaller bloodstains at the side of the main group. It would appear that the sudarium was pinned to the back of the dead man’s head, and that these spots of blood were from small sharp objects, which would logically be the thorns that caused this type of injury all over Jesus’ head.

The medical studies are not the only ones that have been carried out on the sudarium. Dr. Max Frei analysed pollen samples taken from the cloth, and found species typical of Oviedo, Toledo, North Africa and Jerusalem. This confirms the historical route described earlier. There was nothing relating the cloth to Constantinople, France, Italy or any other country in Europe.

An international congress was held in Oviedo in 1994, where various papers were presented about the sudarium. Dr. Frei’s work with pollen was confirmed, and enlarged on. Species of pollen called “quercus caliprimus” were found, both of which are limited to the area of Palestine.

Residues of what is most probably myrrh and aloe have also been discovered, mentioned directly in the gospel of john, 19:39-40, “Nicodemus came as well…and he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes…They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, following the Jewish burial custom.”

The stains were also studied from the point of view of anthropology. The conclusion was that the face that had been in contact with the sudarium had typically Jewish features, a prominent nose and pronounced cheekbones.

Finally, the very fact that the cloth was kept at all is a sign of its authenticity, as it has no artistic or monetary value at all. All the studies carried out so far point in one direction, with nothing to suggest the contrary the sudarium was used to cover the head of the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth from when he was taken down from the cross until he was buried.

3: Coincidence with the Shroud

The sudarium alone has revealed sufficient information to suggest that it was in contact with the face of Jesus after the crucifixion. However, the really fascinating evidence comes to light when this cloth is compared to the Shroud of Turin.

The first and most obvious coincidence is that the blood on both cloths belongs to the same group, namely AB.

The length of the nose through which the pleural oedema fluid came onto the sudarium has been calculated at eight centimetres, just over three inches. This is exactly the same length as the nose on the image of the Shroud.

If the face of the image on the Shroud is placed over the stains on the sudarium, perhaps the most obvious coincidence is the exact fit of the stains with the beard on the face. As the sudarium was used to clean the man’s face, it appears that it was simply placed on the face to absorb all the blood, but not used in any kind of wiping movement.

A small stain is also visible proceeding from the right hand side of the man’s mouth. This stain is hardly visible on the Shroud, but Dr. John Jackson, using the VP-8 and photo enhancements has confirmed its presence.

The thorn wounds on the nape of the neck also coincide perfectly with the bloodstains on the Shroud.

Dr. Alan Whanger applied the Polarized Image Overlay Technique to the sudarium, comparing it to the image and bloodstains on the Shroud. The frontal stains on the sudarium show seventy points of coincidence with the Shroud, and the rear side shows fifty. The only possible conclusion is that the Oviedo sudarium covered the same face as the Turin Shroud.

4: The Temporal Aspect the sudarium before the Shroud

The sudarium has no image, and none of the facial stains of dried or drying blood visible on the Shroud, especially the stain on the forehead in the shape of an inverted three. The stains on the sudarium were made by a less viscous mixture.

This, together with the fact that the fingers which held the sudarium to Jesus’ nose have left their mark, point to a short temporal use of the cloth and eliminate the possibility of its contact with the body after burial.

Jewish tradition demands that if the face of a dead person was in any way disfigured, it should be covered with a cloth to avoid people seeing this unpleasant sight. This would certainly have been the case with Jesus, whose face was covered in blood from the injuries produced by the crown of thorns and swollen from falling and being struck.

It seems that the sudarium was first used before the dead body was taken down from the cross and discarded when it was buried.

This fits in with what we learn from John’s gospel, which tells us that the sudarium was rolled up in a place by itself.

5: Conclusions

The studies on the sudarium and the comparison of this cloth with the Shroud are just one of the many branches of science which point to both having covered the dead body of Jesus. The history of the Oviedo cloth is well documented, and the conclusions of this for the dating of the Shroud need no further comment.

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